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Touki Toussaint appears to be figuring it out

Surging Atlanta is getting plenty of help from one of their young, but volatile, arms.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Depending on your perspective, the National League East is either the gauntlet it was expected to be, or a tattered collective of teams limping to the finish line with the one who fails the least likely to take the top spot among the five clubs. Currently, though, it’s not the New York Mets and their slew of notable offseason moves, or the Philadelphia Phillies and whatever it was that they were hoping to accomplish at the trade deadline. Instead, it’s Atlanta holding the top spot and vying for a fourth straight division crown.

Myriad factors have allowed them to grab ahold of first despite the absence of all-world outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. But perhaps the most interesting development among them is the emergence of Touki Toussaint as a legitimate starting pitcher.

Toussaint was traded to Atlanta by the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2015, in a strange and entirely unfamiliar move that was all about dumping salary (in this case, Bronson Arroyo). First appearing at the big league level in 2018, Toussaint simply hadn’t been able to figure it out at the highest level, most notably due to his command issues. In 2018, Toussaint featured a BB/9 of 6.52 across 29 innings (five starts). He followed that up with a season of 5.62 in 2019, a year in which he pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen (only one start in 24 appearances). The 2020 season was much the same story, with that figure leaping back up to 5.92.

So it’s not surprising that it was not until the end of July this year in which we saw Toussaint back at the Major League level. Much of that can be attributed to an early injury, but at the same time, it’s not as if there was a significant rush to get Toussaint back to the bigs even with the dearth of healthy pitching that most teams have been forced to grapple with all season. Whatever duration it took Toussaint to get healthy and showcase enough development to get the call back to Atlanta was surely worth the wait because he’s been much, much better.

It’s only about 33 innings across six starts, but thus far Toussaint has pitched to a 4.01 ERA and 4.23 xFIP. Those numbers were at 8.88 and 4.98 last year, respectively. He’s at 9.32 K/9 so far, with a CSW% that falls in line with what he’s produced throughout his career (28.9 percent). With Toussaint, though, there’s one key statistic that stands out above all else, because it largely has been the one that’s stood out previously. And for all the wrong reasons.

Those pesky walks.

Toussaint has famously struggled with his command throughout his career, regardless of level. I mentioned the BB/9 numbers. Those culminate in a 5.18 BB/9 for his time with Atlanta, with much of his minor league career also featuring figures above six. This year? He’s at 2.94 per nine.

That’s easily his lowest at any level. Through his six starts, he’s walked more than two in an outing only once and has a seven-inning, no walk start under his belt as well. Naturally, the question here becomes, what changed?

Well, for one, he’s attacking hitters more. That much is apparent to Freddie Freeman, at least. He said he looked different. There’s definitely an element of truth there. Toussaint’s Zone% is actually up quite a bit from his previous outputs. He’s at 42.2 percent, which indicates that he’s throwing the ball in the strike zone with far more consistency than previous big league trips. It’s an easy pitfall for a young pitcher with great stuff; try to nibble and punch everybody out rather than rely on the stuff itself.

The usage has changed too, though:

Touki Toussaint pitch usage
via Baseball Savant

Essentially, Toussaint ditched his trusty four-seamer in favor of the sinker, which he’s tossing to the tune of 48.3 percent of the time. That pitch he’s thrown in the strike zone 57.1 percent of the time, easily the highest among his arsenal. And while he isn’t generating whiffs with the sinker specifically (just 13.3 percent), he’s using it to generate groundball contact a hair over 48 percent of the time. Then, he swoops in with the offspeed/breaking stuff. His splitter and curve each have whiff rates that linger around 41 percent.

It isn’t a finished product, that sinker. Of the seven homers Toussaint has surrendered across those 30 or so innings, five have come against the sinker. Opposing Barrel% is 10.3 against that pitch, representing his highest among the distribution, with a .540 SLG against it on behalf of opposing hitters. So there’s still some command to be grasped with a pitch that is relatively new to the skill set.

But! The science is there because, conceptually, it isn’t a difficult thing to grasp. Use the sinker heavily to generate some swings and some groundballs. Deploy the breaking stuff as your out pitch once you get ahead of hitters. And once Toussaint has been ahead of hitters, he’s been flat-out dominant. His K/9 sits over 12, at the least, in those scenarios, while his BB/9 falls to under two. It’s when he falls behind when he gets into trouble.

When he has to face the lineup a second time through represents an additional wart for Toussaint. In fact, second time through the order, opposing hitters are reaching base at a clip over .400. So that’s something that’ll need to be sorted. But that’s part of the development process, especially for a guy who has bounced between the rotation and the bullpen in his extremely brief time at this level. In a general sense, though, the improvements are there. The development of the sinker is an important one in itself, though, especially when he’s able to locate and utilize it in conjunction with his secondary pitches.

One wouldn’t reasonably expect a leap from “guy with good stuff but command issues” to “bona fide ace” without some roadblocks along the way. And while Toussaint may not necessarily present that kind of upside, the development showcased thus far is very promising. Especially when you consider the context in which he was dropped into the Atlanta rotation. In any case, there are still some things to sort and more development to occur, but what we’ve seen to this point is encouraging. The command was Step 1. Now he just has to figure out what those next steps look like.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.